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Calcutta 1981

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Jean Racine

Session IV. General Debate

Addendum Μ. In Defence of the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority

Durga Das Basu

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1A few weeks after the seminar was held, S.C. Basu, Public Relations Director of the CMDA, who attended the sessions, sent us the following pages, under the title " A paper not presented, not presentable". Not presented, but certainly presentable. It is the passionate argumentation of the author, in defence of the CMDA's action. Two tables attached to this note have been included as annexures of the main CMDA statement by S.K.Roy and K.Roy, "Calcutta Metropolitan Development Programme: Planning for action" (Chapter 10).

2With this text this volume concludes. But the debate on Calcutta, its crisis, its future, remains open (J.R).

A paper not presented, not presentable

3Sitting through two days of a seminar on Calcutta organized by the French Cultural Centre, one gets an uncomfortable feeling that all these had happened or been said before. Suddenly, the realization dawns on the drum-beater of the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA).

4Calcutta is an eternal city indeed. People go on talking about it eternally. The past is dissected, the present analyzed and future outlined by learned people with others, not so learned, listening with bewildered expressions. It is a crime to be Impatient in a seminar of such distinction; it is impolite to intervene and yet one becomes uncomfortable because one finds little enlightenment and less guidance.

5The first two Speeches of Mr. Prasanta Sur, the Vice-Chairman of the CMDA, and Father Gaston Roberge asked two good questions. The Vice-Chairman asked for directions and Father Roberge for attention to the poor. History, economics and politics came in and the two questions largely remained unanswered.

6Since, as I said before, it is impolite to intervene at high-pitch dramatic sequences, it is perhaps prudent to write down "my thoughts" which would cover up, to some extern, my bad command over English though it might emboss my ignorance in print. However, ignorance was not wanting. The role of the CMDA, for example, was little known or understood.

7One who should known better, for example, wondered why the CMDA still continued to talk about water supply, sewerage and drainage, traffic and transportation when these things had been talked of in the days of the Calcutta Metropolitan Planning Organization (CMPO). Somebody else wondered why the Balurghat tax-payer should contribute to the development of Calcutta. Somebody threatened that the World Bank would withdraw from the scene unless something more was done for the city by the CMDA. Some said that depopulation had started; others feared more and more influx to the city. There was still another voice enquiring why Calcutta should aim at getting 40 gallons of water per head per day and the villager left with dirty village pond for his source of life. There was also a question as to what made Bombay so prosperous and Calcutta so deprived. The difference between a housing estate (10 acres) and a township (400 acres) was not universally understood.

  • 1 Diggers, because of the Calcutta joke as it reads Calcutta Metropolitan Digging Authority for CMDA (...)

8As the drum-beater of the CMDA, I left slightly worried. Why should there be so much ignorance even among this class? For example, it should be known that the projects identified by the CMPO (and considered necessary for Calcutta) were many in number and for good reasons, too. Calcutta had been neglected and it is only now that something is being done to meet not only the deficit of the past but also to make some improvements. What is the most suitable language (except one of savage indignation) to explain that the engineering works which have been taken up are only a beginning and as the metropolis grows more and more, such engineering works of water supply, sewerage and drainage, etc. are to be undertaken and completed? There is no escape from it. However, all suggestions that CMDA should do something more than mere engineering works are welcome in so far as they demonstrate people's faith in this Organization. A relevant question as to why should there be no other Organization to undertake different kinds of work, why should the existing organizations not be given additional responsibility and why the CMDA has even to think of a better cultural life for Calcutta cannot be answered. Diggers can be undertakers but they cannot be expected to be architects of prosperity1.

9To raise the bogey of the World Bank and the threat that it will lose interest in Calcutta is slightly misplaced. For one thing, the World Bank was nowhere in the picture when the CMDA started the work in 1970. It came in the picture only in 1973 with a credit of 35 million dollars (about Rs. 30 crore). This money was not additional to CMDA since it was offset against the loan given by the Central Government. The second credit of the World Bank of 87 million dollars (about Rs. 75 crore) was granted in 1978. The second credit will run up to March 1982, and will again be not additional to the CMDA’s resources. During this period (1970-82) the CMDA would perhaps spend approximately Rs. 600 crore and the World Bank contribution (though not received additionally) would be approximately Rs. 100 crore. That is just about 16 per cent of the total investment. There are many projects which are outside the World Bank package. Evidently, the Bank gets more Publicity than it deserves.

10To the questions why Balurghat should finance Calcutta development and how much of the tax-payers money came from Calcutta, the answer is simple. The contribution of Calcutta metropolis to the national and state exchequer need not be underestimated by learned people. As one tried to explain at the seminar, the taxpayer is entitled to some minimum civic services. This cannot be denied on ground of theories of deprivation and the level of poverty in the countryside.

11As one participant pointed out, all the States (including West Bengal) were trying to give incentives to draw Investments. What kind of incentive will it be if we promise lack of water, lack of sanitation and lack of elementary civic facilities even to the people who are prepared (and able) to pay for these services? I do not have any answer to that.

12Nor do I talk of the prosperity of Bombay and wonder what went wrong with Calcutta's economy. Apart from the partition of country and loss of hinterland, the decision to equalize coal and Steel prices taken about 20 years ago deprived Calcutta of its locational advantage over many other regions. Also, there were other factors which are common knowledge, including the incentive factors.

13A point which one tried to make at the seminar was that the CMDA had a limited (though comprehensive) charter of duties; it should be judged by its ability or otherwise to discharge those duties. Why it is not contributing to the economic prosperity or the cultural renaissance cannot really be answered.

14One should perhaps take a lesson from a paper presented by Mr. Alok Banerjee where he underlined how the intelligentsia of Bengal had, in their wisdom, sided with reactionary Imperialist decisions forgetting their duty to the nation. He also painted a picture of the intelligentsia living in glorious isolation and debating non-issues. There does not seem to have been much change in this regard. Calcutta indeed is an eternal city.

15It is difficult to put in writing what Mr. Asok Mitra said about narcissism and other "gifted" practices; lack of appreciation of the realities of the situation in Calcutta can perhaps match that description and language. How else can one ignore Professor Chaube's comparative study of the crime pictures of the big metropolitan cities of India? How can one Interpret our refusal to understand the realities of Calcutta?

16People with imagination like Father Roberge really have their hearts in the right places. There is a movement called antodaya, meaning upliftment of the last one. Perhaps the movement has to make a beginning in the metropolis of Calcutta where the pavement-dwellers will be provided with a shelter free of cost, the rickshaw-puller made the owner of his rickshaw, child labour will be protected against exploitation (not by prohibiting him from working) and everybody assured of minimum justice.

17As long as the CMDA is not asked to undertake all these, the seminar was indeed a seminar of importance.

18When Mr. Prasanta Sur asked for directions, when he spoke of our attitude of "let us take care of the rich and the poor will take care of themselves", when Father Roberge vainly tried to have a peep into the black box, they were in good company.

19We, in the CMDA, have more than a theoretical interest in the development of the metropolis. None is more aware than us that mere engineering works and attention on infrastructure cannot meet the problems of Calcutta. Sometimes, policy decisions at higher levels affect the growth or otherwise of the metropolis; sometimes there are "push and pull" factors and more often, there is the cart before the horse situation.

20Yet, with limited resources, competing with conflicting demands, racing against time to catch up with at least a part of the people's aspirations, the CMDA has made at least a little contribution to the metropolitan development. In the fifties, there used to be few thousand deaths from cholera. Today, it is less than a dozen. If the CMDA has prevented few thousand deaths (by better and protected water supply), it need not be ashamed. If it has converted over 50,000 dry latrines into sanitary ones, we need not be ashamed.

21We would like people to judge us by what we have done and not by what we should have done. We were given some tasks. Philosophy is another matter.

Endnoten

1 Diggers, because of the Calcutta joke as it reads Calcutta Metropolitan Digging Authority for CMDA (J.R.).

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 1990

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